House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

This is the first film from rock star Rob Zombie, a man that I have pretty much vilified in conversations and reviews for basically filming Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 over and over again (with side dishes of Horror House on Highway 5 and Eaten Alive). That said — I watched this with an open mind and the hope of being entertained.

Zombie started directed several of his band White Zombie’s videos and was selected by Universal Studios to design a haunted maze for their Halloween Horror Nights. It was so successful that he was credited with reviving the attraction and he began a relationship with the studio. He has previously worked on a script for a sequel to The Crow called The Crow: 2037 A New World of Gods and Monsters.

Despite plans for an animated Frankenstein film, Zombie decided to turn his haunted house into an actual movie. Filmed in 2000 on the Universal Studio backlots, which gives this the same feel as the aforementioned Eaten Alive, the film was held for three years as there was concern over releasing it, due to all the blood, gore, masturbation and necrophilia. Not wanting an NC-17, Universal was content to sit on the film until Zombie bought it back and sold it to Lion’s Gate, who finally released it almost three years after the film had wrapped.

The film opens on October 30, 1977, as two criminals attempt to rob the gas station of Captain Spalding (Sid Haig, Spider Baby). It’s a quick intro to get us into the spirit of the film — down, dirty and scummy. Soon, Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (The Office’s Rainn Wilson), Mary and Erin arrive, as they are traveling the country writing about strange roadside attractions.

Spalding gives them a tour of his Museum of Monsters and Madmen, during which he relates the legend of Doctor Satan, a mad doctor who was hung by an angry mob. Before they leave, he gives them a hand-drawn map to the tree where they lynched the man.

On the way, they pick up Baby (Zombie’s muse, Sheri Moon Zombie), a hitchhiker who gets in the car moments before a tire blows out and her half-brother Rufus (former pro wrestler Robert “Bonecrusher” Mukes) picks them up in his tow truck.

What follows is a descent into madness, as the Firefly family (who are all named after Marx Brothers characters) takes over the film. There’s Mother Firefly (Karen Black, Trilogy of Terror), adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley, Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Grampa Hugo (character actor Dennis Fimple in his last film) and the deformed giant Tiny (Matthew McGrory , a real-life giant who is also in Bubble Boy and Big Fish). The family has already kidnapped five cheerleaders and now is presenting a Halloween show to their guests, who run in fear before being taken back into the house.

The family begins to torture the four kids, including killing Bill to turn him into a mer-man like something out of an old roadside sideshow and scalping Jerry (who is named for the composer of the Star Trek theme).

Meanwhile, Denise’s dad Don and two deputies (Tom Towles from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Walton Goggins from TV’s Justified) track down the missing kids, only to be killed by the family. Then, the remaining three are dressed as rabbits and chased through a maze.

Jerry — despite being scalped — and Denise survive, only to find their way to Doctor Satan’s lair, where he operates on Jerry and reveals that his assistant Earl is the father of the Firefly family. Denise, however, escapes again, only to be picked up by Captain Spalding, who offers to drive her to safety. She passes out and Otis appears in the back seat. She awakens on Doctor Satan’s operating table and that’s the end!

The footage for this film is all over the place, much like Natural Born Killers. That’s because Zombie filmed a lot of the sequences in his basement with a 16mm camera, including the opening shot of the moon.

There are moments of style here, but the film feels pretty messy, There are enough ideas to fill several films and no real cohesive tale to be told, but that didn’t take away my enjoyment of the film. It feels like there’s promise here, unlike 31, where Zombie pretty much retold this same story again. There are several films that Zombie never made, like retellings of C.H.U.D. and The Blob, as well as an adaption of his comic The Nail called Tyrannosaurus Rex that would have been an homage to violent 70’s action films. I would have loved to see what he could do with different subject matter.

The Fireflys returned for the more serious The Devil’s Rejects and will soon return one more time for 3 From Hell. You can check this one — and several of Zombie’s other films — out on Shudder.

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